Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett

Synopsis:
The account of a missionary and linguist who has devoted his life to studying the language and culture of the Piraha in the Amazon, a people who have no numbers, colors, origin story, or perception of anything outside the immediate.

Review:
Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes is a fascinating first person account that looks at a culture that is so utterly alien to our own that it’s hard to believe we could ever have anything in common with them.

The Piraha people live in Brazil along the Amazon, and have an hermetically sealed culture that is seemingly impervious to outside influences, mainly because the Piraha believe themselves superior in every way to the rest of the world. In their discourse, they don’t reference anything outside the immediate, and have no words to reflect those sorts of concepts. For example, they don’t use numbers because counting something means that there could be more of a thing, but since the more isn’t right there then there is no more, therefore, no need to count. To put it another way, they use the word “all” indiscriminately. You can still have all of something even after giving part of it away. They don’t discuss the origin of the universe, nor does their cosmology include an afterlife.

This all proved to be fascinating to the author, Daniel L. Everett, as well as spiritually challenging. A linguist, Everett’s main task was to decode Piraha language so that he could translate the Bible for them. He ended up discovering that Piraha violates several key assumptions that linguists had always assumed to be inviolable, and his work revolutionized the field. However, because he was unable to use the Piraha language to explain Christianity to them, Everett came to lose his faith entirely. He ended up being converted to the Piraha’s pragmatism and immediacy.

I can definitely see how the Piraha way of life would present a challenge to evangelical Christianity, with its emphasis on the inner, personal experience of spirituality. But I can’t help but wonder if Everett had been more grounded in orthodox, Reformed Christianity, with its emphasis on God’s intervention in history if he could’ve found a way to solve the problem of presenting Christianity to a people who can’t even fathom the concept of God. The Piraha laughed when Everett gave his testimony, filled as they usually are with tragedy and dramatic spiritual awakenings, because the Piraha believe that people get what they deserve. In one way, they’re like ancient practitioners of the Secret; but in another way it’s like they already get the idea that nobody is entitled to an easy life. Most Christians who spend years in the faith realize that believing in Christ doesn’t guarantee good things. In fact, the opposite can be true. And Christianity shouldn’t be proved on the basis of the number of blessings a believer can count.

I hope that Bible translators don’t give up on Piraha. I’d love to read another book explaining how such a translation is achieved. It’d be fascinating!

3 thoughts on “Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett”

  1. Suppose Christianity and the rest of the Abrahamic cults are legitimately irrelevant to groups like the Piraha. A Jewish theologian would probably concur and tell you the Piraha (like all non-Jews) are not within the same covenant. Remember Jehovah’s got a sliding scale. The Piraha are probably doing just fine by the pre-Flood standard: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Laws_of_Noah
    It’s the Christians always trying to pull and push everyone into their dispensation, bring Augustine and Calvin to the bushmen. Laughing at this is such a polite, healthy response!

    Over the holidays I read an article in National Geographic about a similar linguistic isolate group in Tanzania that also lives very much in the present. They are thought to be the same way they were 10,000 years ago. (Alongside and apposite to this piece is an article about the monks of Mt. Athos.) One of the more perplexing things about them (to modern minds) is their ability to live together closely, to clearly care for each other, and still have no burial custom, no ritual, no religion or god concepts. They have a high infant and child mortality rate as you’d expect, and most adults don’t live terribly long. Yet there is apparently no dread, no worry, no need for ways to cope intellectually, spiritually, or emotionally with this. “The human condition” or “predicament”–what we mean by that–is foreign to them.

    This all suggests the Nietzschean view of religion (the extraordinarily elaborated modern religions of modern people) has its merits. We are egotistical, narcissistic control freaks. Our forms of salvation appeal to people with these problems. “Faith” tends to be a coping mechanism for those weak of mind, spirit, and will. Others simply believe in belief because they “need to believe” or don’t wish to hurt or disrespect others with these conditions. Christian salvation is also difficult to separate from strategies to gain power for immoral purposes (generally schemes for acquiring an easy life) by whining about one’s superior morality compared to those with power and seemingly easier lives. This is not really new behavior, it just sticks out more when conducted by classless people with exceptionally bad taste, a Fordist view of the past, poor education, and easy lives they find very hard.

    If, as you suggest, the truer, stiffer brand of Christianity has an understanding that you don’t get any benefits by joining with it, then why should anyone join it? What benefit is there, especially to 10,000 BC humanity? What is their special need that the “right” Christianity must have to offer them?

    Try “metal tools,” which double as “money.” Isn’t that the benefit of the big monotheistic faiths and how they surpassed their predecessors?

    Let the Piraha play with steel shovels and knives for a while, then stuff like Christianity will make more sense to them.

    Suppose Christian salvation is salvation from the special sins and demons of imperial civilizations–those that which offers present salvation through the gods of this world: swords and money.

    Judaism could be called a separatist, ethnocentrist religion of civilization fundamentally opposed to empire. Empire relies on the ecumenic idea, the notion of a universal humanity which can be absorbed and contained under one system of law and governance.

    Christianity is an universalistic offshoot of Judaism for a Greco-Roman world. It was produced by a failure of nerve from the Jewish point of view, in that Christ’s (or his redactors’) universalization of “the chosen” was a way to survive in the guts of empire, and to let the empire get in the guts of the true faith.

    That is a very real and true problem with Christianity. It is was Christians or Christian-derived groups like the Amish and the monks of Mt. Athos try to get away from, yet it is essential to Christianity–the state, the sword, the dollar. As you know Calvin and Luther strongly agree, and there is no better example of the problem than their own complicity with mass murders.

    “It’s not money but the love of money that’s the root of all evil,” says Church lady, simple tool of empire and capital. Yes, and it’s not crack or heroin that’s evil but the addiction.

    Addiction is only found in Civilization.

    If you find people living without kings, empires, advanced economies, necessarily exploitative systems of sustenance and empowerment you find people who do not need to be saved. There are probably under 50,000 of them worldwide, and they will be extinct soon, thanks to our intramundane gods.

    Humanity as we know and experience it has everything to do with the leap into language, history, writing, symbolic reasoning, memory, and all the achievements that follow — farming, astronomy, cities, the phalanx, religion, philosophy, law… But there are still other people outside all this, and all people were outside it for a very long time. Our way of being is not very old, and it may not grow to be much older.

  2. Oh I am fascinated – one of my goals for this year’s reading is to read books set in other countries, and this looks amazing.

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